By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com senior columnist
(CBS) It doesn’t directly disparage a group of people, nor is it an insult or a slur in and of itself.
The Blackhawks’ iconic Indian head logo is representative not of a man or a people first, but rather a World War I machine gun battalion that was named after a man – Black Hawk – who was leader of the Sauk tribe in the early 19th century. That layer of abstraction may help to provide some insulation from the prevailing winds.
Still, it’s the cartoon face of an ethnic minority emblazoned on shirts and hats, and there’s something inherently uncomfortable about that.
The Washington Redskins’ name has been deemed offensive by the US Patent Office, its trademark protection removed for that reason. It is the nature of Redskins owner Dan Snyder to relish the battle against the forward march of history, even as he casts himself more villainously with each defiant statement, now close to declaring that his precious racial epithet will have to be pried from his cold, dead hands. When the fight culminates, it will be messy.
In Cleveland, meanwhile, the owners of the Indians have chosen a more deliberate, business-like approach regarding their grinning crimson face of Chief Wahoo. Understanding its basic wrongness, they have begun a measured phase-out in a way designed to remove him without large-scale public conflict. The slow fade of the Chief coincides with increased use of their block “C” as the primary logo, with their marketing department now looking for every opportunity not to employ him. In time he will be entirely discontinued, but not forcibly erased.
Blackhawks executives understand that attitudes toward the use of such images are changing and that arguments invoking tradition and honor ring increasingly hollow when used to rationalize a picture of a war-painted Native American on a hockey sweater.
The Blackhawks haven’t been the subject of organized protest by anyone claiming to be wronged by the use of the logo, and they’ve always managed their optics with careful professionalism. To the Hawks, the Indian head is serious business.
But that doesn’t mean it will always be OK to use the likenesses and trappings of a specific ethnic culture – even one generalized theatrically – to market a professional sports team. Feathered headdresses and crossed tomahawks and “Commit to the Indian” are all part of the fun that surrounds what actually matters, not the essence of it, and the general trend in sports is away from such things.
Colleges and high schools began to set the example years ago with their decisions to end the use of Native American names and symbols, as even the University of Illinois finally dispensed with its ridiculous, buckskin-clad dancing boy despite howls of righteous anger from backward rural folk. That has meant that those remaining — Florida State, the Cleveland Indians, the Atlanta Braves and, yes, the Blackhawks – now earn more scrutiny as notable exceptions.
As with Cleveland, the Hawks have a secondary logo that has become nearly as commonplace as the Indian head on team gear seen across Chicago in the taverns and schoolyards. It too is a “C,” still including the crossed tomahawks but not making use of a smiling, tan face. When we see it worn proudly by a fan on a cap or a T-shirt or stuck to the back of the car in front of us at a stoplight, we aren’t specifically conscious of the absence of the Indian head. Instead, the immediate association remains direct and positive, accomplishing the same goal of representative emotional connection.
There could come a day when the Blackhawks feel it’s right to place that logo on the sweaters, too, and on the floor of their locker room, similarly protected from unmindful footsteps of disrespect.
And that would be just fine.